Making Sense Of Sex Work

In previous posts here on MSP, I’ve struggled to make sense of sex work as a feminist and as a scholar. I’ve discussed why legislating sex work is problematic, and that post sparked a further rumination on how my position as someone who doesn’t have sex work experience means I have to check my privilege when talking about these issues.

Because this continues to be a hotly debated topic, I thought I’d share some resources that have been helpful for me in making sense of sex work.

First, have a look at the sex worker flow chart here, which encourages viewers to reflect on their reasons for being against sex work, providing a list of consequences of taking those stances.

This Feministe post, The War on Sex Workers, emphasizes that we should view sex worker rights within the larger issue of women’s rights (though I’d urge people to keep in mind that men sell sex too, as do people not identifying within a binaristic gender). Whether that means fighting for the liberation of victims of sex-trafficking, or at the other end of the spectrum, fighting for the rights of sex workers to pursue their chosen career without violence or persecution, this is an interesting point. As the authors argue: “The energy that should be spent listening to people in the sex trade, learning what they need, helping them make themselves safer, combating racism and classism in sex work is instead being turned against sex workers.”

A different Feministe post, Supporting Sex Workers’ Rights, Opposing the Buying of Sex, takes another approach, stating that in the author’s feminist utopia, sex work would not exist as a profession, but in the here and now, it’s important to support sex worker rights. She advocates that we “Push for a world where sex isn’t commodified, while still recognizing that today it is commodified and sex workers, like all workers, deserve to live lives free of violence and social ostracization, and deserve basic workplace protections.” I find this a little distasteful, like when people say that they love the sinner but hate the sin (as in gay marriage debates), but at least it’s a call to support sex workers (whereas a lot of folks still dehumanize and stigmatize them).

As you might imagine, these two posts generated quite a bit of commentary, from multiple angles. And so Feministe put out yet another post, Centering Sex Worker Voices, in order to highlight the fact that for all our theoretical debate, action needs to be taken to make sex workers’ lives safer. Period. And this initiative must contain input from within the sex worker community; it can’t just be outsiders imposing their opinions on a group with different lived experiences.

Those wanting to know more may find the work of Dr. Laura Agustín of interest. Her research includes sex worker perspectives as often as possible, as in this interview with her on how banning prostitution can negatively impact sex workers. And this RealityCheck interview with a number of sex workers about the effects of feminism on their lives is fascinating. One makes the point: “I have felt dismissed and silenced by feminists who thought their research was more credible than my first-hand experience.”

What I’m getting at here is that you can be the most feminist-y feminist who ever feminist-ed… but that doesn’t automatically give you insights into sex work. Only talking to sex workers can do that. And feminism has a bad track record of trying to “save” women from themselves, as Cliff Pervocracy points out in this post “How can you be a feminist and do bdsm?” when stating: At various times, various branches of feminism have swooped in to “save” femme women, married women, women who stay home with their kids, women who do sex work, cis women who welcome trans women into women’s spaces–and it has always been a disaster.  It’s forced women to defend their dignity and even their safety from the people who are supposed to be advocating for them.

So when you’re debating the ethics of sex work, or trying to learn more so you can be reasonably informed in event of such a debate, take care to look beyond theoretical arguments. Look for sex worker voices and experiences. One great starting place is the Red Umbrella Project, which assembles and amplifies the experience narratives of sex workers. Now that you know what to look for, hopefully you can find other resources on your own.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.